Darting down the sideline, Liza Roach dodged her defender, pushing past the opponent in blue and using her foot as a springboard. As Roach neared the block letters across the end zone of Deeds Field, she knew what she needed to do.

Spinning like a ballerina, Roach evaded her defender, cut parallel to the endline and readied herself to send the soccer ball into the box to her waiting teammate, Callie Davis.

As Roach slammed her left foot next to the ball, jamming her cleat into the ground, she thought she was setting up for the perfect cross.

Instead, her left foot stuck. Hard. 

Her body continued forward while the green turf swallowed her shiny, white cleats, and Roach’s knee twisted unnaturally.


It’s a sound Roach still hears in her nightmares. Pain shot through her leg like 100 bee stings.

Lying on the big “D” painted on the endzone of the football field where the Denison University women’s team plays soccer, Roach was immediately swarmed by teammates.

They all discerned what that “pop” meant. It was a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and Roach knew in an instant that it would be months before she could play again.

Her heart broke, her knee screamed, and her coaches came running.

Roach, 21, a junior health, exercise, and sports science major at Denison University from Buffalo, New York, is one of four players on the Denison women’s team to suffer ACL injuries on artificial turf in the last two years.

The Big Red women are not the only athletes battling injuries attributed to artificial turf – at Denison and beyond.

In September 2023, Aaron Rodgers, a New York Jets quarterback, suffered a torn Achilles tendon when his left foot suffered the same fate as Roach’s, getting stuck in the turf while his body went in a different direction, thanks in part to a hit by Buffalo Bills lineman Leonard Floyd. Since Rodgers’ injury, the National Football Players Association has reignited calls for abolition of artificial turf fields, citing players’ health.

Even as their calls for grass echo through NFL offices, colleges and high schools – including Granville, Newark and Heath locally – continue to tear up grass fields and replace them with artificial turf.

Denison is among the colleges with turf fields, the latest of which is currently under construction at the new Kienzle-Hylbert Stadium, a soccer and lacrosse facility designed to sport artificial turf.

That is not comforting to some Denison athletes.

“I completely blame Deeds (Field) and Piper Stadium,” Roach said about her injury in August 2021. “I fully believe the turf was the problem.”

An injury that typically takes six to nine months for recovery took Roach almost 10 months. Today, even with a letter of clearance from her doctor, Roach has scars that will never fade, and a slight tilt to her walk that likely will follow her through the rest of her life.

Roach is one of many athletes at Denison and elsewhere who has been hobbled on artificial turf – enough that the athletic training room ran out of crutches to give to injured athletes halfway through the 2023 fall season.

This number of injuries has raised concern among student-athletes about the Kienzle-Hylbert field.

Named for two Denison lacrosse graduates, the university broke ground for Kienzle-Hylbert Stadium in the spring of 2023. At a cost of about $5.5 million, the stadium includes the field, permanent bleachers, lighting, and a press box. It makes Denison athletics administrators optimistic about growth in sports programs.

“We evaluate our needs,” said Sara Lee, Denison’s assistant athletic director. “And we really needed another turf field. We have beautiful athletic facilities for most, and we are trying to make it the best student athlete experience possible.”

While Lee and her coworkers’ excitement builds, concern continues in the locker rooms of Mitchell Recreation and Athletic Center.

Artificial turf is a surface made for sports stadiums that mimics natural grass using synthetic materials – a carpet of artificial fibers that mimic blades of grass – placed atop shredded rubber infill over a hard surface.

It’s deemed easier to maintain than natural grass, but it has a higher rate of non-contact injury than grass.

According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, which tracked injuries in the NFL during the 2012-2016 seasons, there was a 16% increase of injury on artificial turf compared to natural grass. That’s 391 injuries. 

The report said this is due to the higher coefficient of friction of synthetic turf, which makes the surface unable to create divots like cleats are designed to make. And as a result, the turf doesn’t always release the cleat, even while the athlete is making a turning motion, which can lead to a “potentially dangerous overload.”

But Logan Kittaka, assistant athletic trainer for the Denison Women’s Soccer team, said that grass is not without its problems for athletes, and the new field will benefit Denison players.

“If anything, we are more wary of grass – if it’s uneven or if there are weird holes. So grass is less reliable in what you are going to get.”

Lee said that issue plagued Barclay-Thompson field, the field that Kienzle-Hylbert Stadium is replacing.

On some weekends in the past, the men’s and women’s soccer teams were unable to compete back-to-back because of damage to the field during the first game, Lee explained. The damage occurred when running players tore up the field behind them, their cleats leaving craters in the grass. The damage, divots and grassless patches, could lead to increased injuries when an athlete stepped in a hole or slipped on a patch of dead grass. Rain also poses problems for grass fields, prohibiting their use when the field is too wet.

Even with all the time and money the university invested in maintaining the Barclay-Thompson grass, it was patchy and inconsistent – so much so that the university shortened the field for the 2022 season to avoid dangerous grassless sections.

Well-maintained turf has no such issues, Kittaka said. Practices, games, and intramural activities can now happen on one field, all in the same day, with no more late-night practices, no more forced early wake-ups to get turf time. The new turf field could present athletes with a far more consistent schedule, at much more manageable hours.

When asked about the concerns about increased injury rates on turf, Lee said that Denison is doing everything it can to minimize risk, such as providing consistent access to trainers and specialized weightlifting programs.

Even with reassurance from trainers and administrators, it is hard to forget the athletes, at Denison and elsewhere, who have been injured on artificial turf.

Mattie Mielke, 18, a freshman on the women’s soccer team, arrived at preseason practice with her ACL already torn. Caroline Garrad, 21, a senior, had her soccer career of 17 years effectively ended one Wednesday night in October when she became the latest victim in women’s soccer. Wynne Hague, 21, a junior on the team, tore her ACL in the early days of September not far from where Roach was carried off of Deeds Field the year before.

All on turf.

Roach relived her darkest days as she tried to help teammate and best friend Hague through her injury. Garrard had to watch her team make a run to the NCAA tournament as she sat on the sidelines in sneakers. Mielke has yet to wear the jersey she came to Ohio for.

Roach still walks with a tilt. Still avoids that big “D” in the end zone.

As the construction enters an advanced stage, and as the NFL Players Union pushes for grass fields, Denison athletes wrestle with the benefits and the possible physical costs that could come with a new stadium and its artificial turf.

Sarah Sollinger writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.